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Software industry's false choice for governments

Cloud application providers talk about unshackling governments and enterprises from the constraints of hardware and software licenses, but this newfound freedom comes at a price.

At Microsoft's Public Sector CIO Summit this week, Microsoft is promising governments "choice," a theme normally reserved for the freedom-loving open-source set.

But Microsoft's "choice" campaign is all about giving governments the option to step into the Google-blessed cloud realm without leaving the comfort of their Windows/Office/etc. environments. For some, and perhaps many, this may be just the sort of safe choice they're seeking.

It's not as if the Google alternative is ipso facto better.

After all, while Google and other cloud application providers talk about unshackling governments and enterprises from the constraints of hardware and software licenses, this newfound freedom comes at a price. Microsoft's proprietary file formats, for example, are bad for enterprises looking to switch to alternatives like Google Apps or OpenOffice, as two municipalities in the Netherlands discovered to their hurt, but the potential for lock-in is arguably much worse in the cloud.

That is, unless vendors provide open-data guarantees. Google has thus far committed to open data through its Data Liberation Front and other guarantees.

Governments are going to want to see those guarantees in writing.

After all, there is a fundamental tension between calls for open government and cloud computing, a tension that Gartner's Andrea DiMaio calls out. These are resolvable, of course, but only as citizens (and the governments who serve them) demand open data, open formats, open standards, and, yes, open source.

At its core, of course, real choice comes out of free markets, not software licenses. Competition creates choice.

But as those municipalities in the Netherlands are learning about Microsoft and the City of Los Angeles, a Google Apps customer, may learn about Google, any product choice that comes without implicit, ironclad guarantees of openness tends to diminish the potential for competition. And where competition is diminished, a vendor's pricing power increases.

The answer is not government mandates for open source, per se, but rather procurement guidelines that demand open source (for on-premises deployments), open data (for cloud deployments), and open standards (for both cloud and on-premises deployments) at least be considered, and probably given preference. In other words, a requirement for real choice, not the false choice proprietary software and clouds offer.